09/29/2013 09:34 EDT | Updated 11/27/2013 05:12 EST

Is Cecile Kyenge The Jackie Robinson of Italian Politics?

I am studying in Italy right now, and I love it. I get to sit outside and drink little cups of coffee and walk under 2000-year-old arches and on 2000-year-old aqueducts and buy wine wherever and whenever I please (yes, that was for you, LCBO) and look down on ingenuous, fashion-challenged North Americans. Europeans are so sophisticated, aren't they?

Well, not always. Ask Cecile Kyenge, Italy's first black cabinet minister, appointed Minister of Integration by the coalition government of Enrico Letta in April. Kyenge is a dream immigrant. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she moved to Italy at 18, became an eye surgeon, an Italian citizen and married an Italian with whom she is raising two children.

It could be said that Kyenge is also the Jackie Robinson of Italian politics, expected to perform her job while tolerating, with dignity, all the calumnies thrown her way. The comparison may seem odd, but consider what she has had to overlook since her appointment.

A partial list: Mario Borghezio, a European parliamentarian from Italy's anti-immigration Northern League party, suggested Kyenge's inclusion in cabinet meant Rome would be home to a "bonga bonga government" -- not to be confused with Silvio Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" parties -- and that Kyenge would bring "tribal traditions" to Italian politics (an ironic accusation, given Italy's dialects and divisions). Italy's Deputy Speaker of the Senate, Roberto Calderoli (another Northern League politician), said that Kyenge reminded him of an orangutan.

After criticism in the media, he claimed that he had spoken as an animal-lover and was making "an aesthetic judgment, not meant to be racist." (As an animal-lover myself, this flimsy explanation really gets my goat.) The deputy mayor of a town on the Italian Riviera implied that Kyenge was a regular in a part of town known for prostitution. Kyenge has received death threats, been called names ("zulu", "Congolese monkey") and had bananas thrown at her during a rally -- on that day, she responded only by saying it was a shame food was being wasted. On two occasions this summer, mannequins smeared with red paint (some with messages saying "immigration kills") were left as a threat to her.

The viciousness has been such that it prompted a show of unity from EU politicians, when more than a dozen of them visited Rome earlier this week to sign an anti-racism declaration.

Some of Kyenge's critics insist they are only upset about her proposal to change Italian citizenship laws, making immigrants' Italian-born children automatic citizens. There are legitimate concerns about the proposal, but it is hard to believe that someone who throws a banana at a black politician isn't motivated by something other than a policy disagreement.

It should be said that the Italians who insult Kyenge do not represent the majority. But the problem persists, aggravated by a number of factors: economic crises can inspire the worst kind of xenophobia and Italy is currently smack dab in the middle of one, with only faint signs of improvement; a tolerance in Italy for the existence of neo-fascist groups (it is astonishing how easily one can find Mussolini paraphernalia here) and a disturbingly high threshold for not just politically incorrect, but truly odious comments.

I've heard plenty of the former in my classes here: one professor has said that Asian students "like rules and regulations" and another that Germans are "good at fixing things" (insert Axis joke here). As for the latter, well, some may remember Silvio Berlusconi's remark about Barack Obama's "tan", a few years back, and this year's elections saw huge successes for serial dissembler Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, despite Grillo's throwback-to-the-1930s nationalism, isolationist worldview and history of incendiary anti-Jewish rhetoric.

Just a couple of days ago I saw, on an Italian sports show, a caricature of the current (Italian) owner of Milan's Inter soccer club done up with slanted eyes and a thin moustache. Very Charlie Chan, it was presented on the heels of the news that he may sell his club to an Indonesian businessman.

Immigration is also a factor: 50 years ago, non-white Italians were not part of the country's national portrait. Another generation will have to grow up before such novelties are no longer novelties; Italy has immigrant communities, but by and large, it is still -- certainly, when compared to new world nations like Canada and the United States - homogeneous.

Kyenge's most recent "offence" has been to comment on soccer, a point of passion in Italy. Though her words were innocuous -- she expressed hope that the persistent problem of racial taunts by fans against black players would cease -- the comments under the article reporting her words on Corriere della Sera's website were overwhelmingly nasty and along "how dare this foreigner stick her nose into our sport" lines.

It so happens that Italy's Serie A soccer champions for the 2012-2013 season, Juventus, made an anti-racism video on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream speech", a video in which the team's players recite the speech in Italian and (a wee bit) in English. Fifty years after that speech, America has an African-American president and Italy struggles with the reality of a growing multi-racial society.

Though Juventus's "I Have a Dream" video could be dismissed as a merely platitudinous gesture - such as the anti-racism banners and armbands that have become a norm of international soccer tournaments or the anti-racism declaration signed in Rome this week -- I found it rather lovely.

But then, I'm an unsophisticated North American.

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